Allison Rabenau celebrated an inauspicious milestone on the otherwise unremarkable day of Oct. 18, 2004. Six weeks into her first year as a teacher, she finally taught a class.
Ms. Rabenau had left a long career as a stage manager in the commercial theater to learn how to teach English as a second language to immigrant children in New York’s public schools. The only problem, she quickly discovered, was that the avalanche of paperwork and other assignments meant she actually got to teach only sporadically.
In a perfect, if dispiriting bit of symmetry, her initial year at Public School 123 in Harlem ended the same way it began. Ms. Rabenau lost the last six weeks of the spring term to prepare, administer, then score a standardized test for English fluency.
Essentially, her teaching year, and her students’ learning year, had run only from mid-October to mid-April, with numerous interruptions even then. During the time when the students were entitled to instruction in English, they were sitting in other courses that they may or may not have understood.
Being a newcomer to the profession, by way of the alternative track of the Teaching Fellows program, Ms. Rabenau assumed the fault lay with her alone. Except that in her next year, the pattern repeated itself. (Well, O.K., she did manage to convene the first real class on Oct. 7, 2005, a mere five weeks along.)
In the spring of 2006, she came up with a strategy to help her students’ writing. She had them become pen pals with her cat, whose photograph adorned the classroom and was the subject of plenty of classroom chatter. The arrival of the annual English-fluency test, with all of its attendant duties, scuttled that plan.
But it gave birth to another idea. Less inclined after a second futile year to blame only herself, Ms. Rabenau set about surveying other teachers of English fluency for a research paper in her graduate studies at City University of New York.
The results, which she assembled in the summer of 2006, told her that her frustrations were shared. The situation was most acute for teachers in schools that did not have a staff administrator to handle the voluminous paperwork required for English language learners, as the students are called.
Teachers in such schools were responsible for completing more than a dozen different forms, evaluations, assessments and reports that came variously from the levels of district, city, state and federal government, and grading standardized tests.
Teachers like Ms. Rabenau were also repeatedly conscripted within their schools to substitute for absent colleagues, to proctor exams in other classes and to chaperon field trips.
“I’ve worked with opera singers and Rockettes, so I know what stress is,” said Ms. Rabenau, 44. “And when I was a stage manager, I did plenty of paperwork. But this frustration was unlike anything I ever felt because the stakes were so much higher.”
Ms. Rabenau makes no claim that her research paper is defensible as social-science scholarship. She approached a modest sample of 150 teachers and received responses from 24. Still, her findings at the very least suggest an endemic problem with consequences for both teacher morale and student achievement.
Wojciech Schneider, who participated in the survey, started teaching at a kindergarten-through-Grade 8 school in the Bronx after more than a decade of instructing adult immigrants in English.
Even with such experience, and with a supportive principal, he scrambled to deal with nearly 100 students spread across three levels of fluency and all nine grades. He was able to teach them for only about 60 percent of the supposedly allotted classroom time.
“It was a reality check for me, to have the number of students I was supposed to serve and on top of that all the paperwork,” said Mr. Schneider, 36. “It was like trying to swim and stay afloat, and I was feeling this strong pull downward from all the other things that did not entail teaching.”
Jim Knox, 55, took up teaching after a career in health care administration, making him an expert of sorts in bureaucracies. As the sole instructor for about 60 elementary school students learning English in the Bronx, he lost so much class time to other tasks that eventually his principal arrived at an inventive and perverse solution: Mr. Knox would steal time from himself, teaching the day’s class in periods designated for preparing the next day’s lessons. “Systemically,” Mr. Knox said of the conflicting demands on teachers like him, “it is absurd.”
Before hearing the response from the Department of Education, it is worth making one point. Ms. Rabenau, Mr. Schneider and Mr. Knox offer no sense of being complainers or goldbrickers. If anything, as accomplished professionals who came into New York’s public schools and specifically the education of immigrant children because of a certain idealism, they are the kind of teachers the department ought to be holding onto, not giving reasons to leave.
The Education Department put forward Andrés Alonso, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, to deliver a long, detailed and aggressive defense of the city’s track record with immigrant students. (Since that session, on June 20, Dr. Alonso has become the chief executive of Baltimore’s public schools.)
“The bottom line is outcomes for us,” Dr. Alonso said.
THE department delineated those outcomes in a 23-page PowerPoint presentation chart it supplied subsequently. The data indeed showed that English language learners were performing better on basic skills tests and Regents exams, as well as in promotion and graduation rates, during Joel I. Klein’s tenure as chancellor.
The improvements, though, also have coincided with New York State’s raising of graduation requirements and with the federal No Child Left Behind law, which forces schools to show the progress, or lack thereof, of student subgroups, including those with limited English. So any credit has to be shared.
When it came to addressing the experiences of teachers like those in Ms. Rabenau’s research paper, Dr. Alonso recalled his own experiences teaching English as a second language in Newark. He did not express a surplus of sympathy.
“It was part of my job that was no different from my weekly routine,” he said, referring to the paperwork. “The bottom line is, are the kids being promoted, are they passing the Regents, are they being mainstreamed? We should be tremendously skeptical of anecdotal data.”
As for Ms. Rabenau, she resigned during the school year and will be leaving New York soon for Bangkok to teach at an international school. Perhaps the schoolchildren there will get to correspond with her cat.